What Can Evangelicals Learn from Catholic Christians?: 
An Evangelical Response

Gordon T. Smith, PhD

President, Ambrose University (Calgary, Alberta)

 I offer these comments – what can Evangelicals learn from Catholics — as an Evangelical. I speak to this theme as one who is at peace with my own tradition. I deeply value and appreciate the strengths and perspectives of my religious formation and upbringing. And I appreciate and affirm the theological emphases of this heritage.

But I also speak as one deeply indebted to perspectives and wisdom from the Catholic tradition that has, over many years, enriched my Christian journey.  Indeed, I would say that I am indebted — deeply so — to the gifts I have received along the way from the Catholic theological and spiritual tradition.  

In this regard, there are some inevitable limitations on my perspective. I do not speak as an insider. There are some things I will not get quite right; there is the danger that I will even potentially offend someone who is Catholic. But we need to take this risk. It is so good to see the growing movement known as “Receptive Ecumenism” that offers the observation that this is where ecumenism needs to go:  we can and must consider not only where we differ and try to manage or make sense of those differences, we also need to ask, “What can we learn from one another?” — and, of course, explore what we can learn together.

This perspective assumes the diversity of gifts that we each bring to the table.

Do we differ? Do we differ substantially? Yes, without doubt. Are the issues on which we differ matters that merit focused attention? Yes. What follows is not naïve to these differences; neither am I seeking to paper over differences. But I do come at this with a two-fold conviction. First, we are learners and need to be, learning from each other and with each other; we have the potential to enrich each other’s experience of Christ. And second, that our differences, however significant, should perhaps actually be approached through this lens — that is, perhaps we should address our differences even as we are learning from and with each other and in light of what we are learning from one another and what we are learning together. Perhaps this should be our point of departure.

I am also conscious of the fact that we are coming up to the 500th anniversary of the launch of the Protestant Reformation, in 2017.  And I wonder if this should be the focus of this year: how and in what ways might we look back and see not so much our differences as the ways in which we can learn from one and other and learn together.

To that end, here is what one Evangelical has and is learning from Catholic Christians. I will be autobiographical — and use this lecture as a way to say “thank you.”


1.  Sacramentality: the vital place of the sacraments in the worship and witness of the church.

I offer these observations in no particular order and yet, I am going to begin with what is perhaps most front and center and, in a sense, most obvious:  the centrality of the sacraments in Catholic worship, and by implication an appreciation of the place of the place of sacraments for the whole of the Christian faith and for Christian mission. 

While there is a definite stream of sacramentality within Protestantism, and without doubt, some (not all) Anglicans would insist they are sacramental, and while my own view of the sacraments has been most informed by John Calvin’s Institutes, there is no doubt that for most Evangelicals, their encounter with a more sacramental worship and spirituality comes through observations and experience of the Catholic world, and especially Catholic worship. When we instituted weekly Lord’s Supper/Eucharist at Tenth Church in Vancouver — a church community that is very much “evangelical”, we were accused of being Catholic! Although both John Calvin and John Wesley advocated for weekly celebration of the Eucharist, the perception remains that a more sacramental orientation is a more “catholic’” perspective and approach to worship. And indeed even in my own understanding, my reading of Calvin and Wesley was formative. But initially and in a continued sense, it is Catholic voices and perspectives that have called me to a greater appreciation of the sacraments in the life and witness of the church.

I grew up within a religious sub-culture that pitted evangelical worship as contra, almost the antithesis of Catholic sacramentality: we were very definitely not sacramental, and indeed, in a sense we were actually anti-sacramental.

I can truly say that I am grateful to Catholic voices that have helped me and many other Evangelicals come to a greater appreciation of the central principle of sacramental worship: that embodiment matters, that materiality is inherent in our way of being — that physicality in worship is essential to true worship; the sense that if it only happens in our heads and our hearts and does not happen in our bodies as well, then, perhaps, it does not “take” deeply and thoroughly. The great danger of Evangelical worship is that it could be entirely interior: either cerebral, rational and in the mind — something we merely think about — or mere sentimentality and nothing but good feelings. But Catholics challenge us to a full orbed and fully embodied worship. They remind us that grace, by its very nature, must be “bred in the bone” — embodied — if it is to have long term, transformational impact in our lives.

The sacramental traditions as a whole, and the Catholic tradition in particular help us to see the witness to embodiment in the Scriptures. They appreciate that baptism is essential to Christian discipleship (as is clear form Matthew 28:20 and Acts 2:38), and indeed that it is integral to the experience of coming to faith in Christ. They know and demonstrate that the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist is a “real time” encounter with the risen and ascended Christ.

In my Evangelical upbringing we were taught to “think” about Jesus when we came to the Lord’s Table. But what many of us have come to learn is that at the Table the Spirit brings us into a “real-time” encounter with the Ascended Christ, and that the sacraments are the very means by which the Spirit does the Spirit’s work in the life of the Christian and in the life of the Church.

Now I know of course, that everything I just said is very much in Calvin and Wesley. And yet, for many of us, not only did we not see it in the Scriptures, we did not even fully appreciate it in our own spiritual heritage … and for many of us, it was the Catholic vision of the Incarnation and the sacramental means of divine grace that altered the conversation.


2.   A Fuller Appreciation of the Gospel:   expanding our appreciation of the full scope of what God has accomplished (and is accomplishing) in Christ.

My own tradition tends to focus in its understanding of the salvation of God, on the Cross: at the Cross we know the salvation of God — through the atoning sacrifice wherein we know the forgiveness of our sins and thus the salvation of God. This and in many respects only this, is the Gospel.  

I appreciate this emphasis and deep, core commitment. I value the hymnody and songs of my youth — of my heritage — that recognized and affirmed that in Christ and through faith in Christ, and in radical dependence on his unique work on the Cross, we know the salvation of God.  It is interesting to me that many who choose to criticize the Roman Catholic Church do so on the conviction that the Catholic church, as they said, has “added” to the Gospel, and they use the book of Galatians, typically, to make this argument.

But when we read the whole NT, including of course the Gospels, we see that the Gospel of Christ Jesus includes, at the very least two other dimensions, also equally critical to a biblical appreciation of God’s saving work in Christ Jesus.

First, we see that the Cross of Christ was a means to an end: that we would be united with Christ. In the words of St. Paul: “Christ in you the hope of glory.”  While the seeds of this perspective are very much within my own tradition, it was actually — as it is for so many Evangelicals — an exposure to 16th century Catholic mystics that helped me see this, and then come back and discover it within my own tradition. The writings of Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Ignatius Loyola — and the guided prayers of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius and with this the whole scope of Ignatian spirituality — brought me [and, as I say, so many other Evangelicals] to an appreciation that our salvation is not only a transaction that God procured for us at the Cross. It is that, of course, but it is not only that:  our salvation is, ultimately, union with Christ, and in union with Christ participation in the life of the Triune God.

Second, it is Catholic voices that helped me come to an appreciation of the following: that the Gospel includes and must include the Lordship of Christ over all things, over all Creation, and of course over my own life. The good news surely includes the following: that even now, God in Christ is reconciling all things to himself; and that thus we pray the prayer “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” knowing that Christ sits on the throne of the universe.  

My tradition tended to separate Christ as Savior from Christ as Lord, making a distinction between salvation and discipleship. This makes no sense. And I am grateful to monastic authors and spiritual masters who helped me to see (or influenced other voices that in turn helped me to see) that the only tragedy in life is the failure to become a saint [a line from Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory].

My point here is this: that we all believe the Gospel; but what might be a wonderful gift is that we have much to learn from one another on this score. And this leads me to the next point.


3.  Spiritual Formation and Spiritual Direction:  means by which we are formed in the faith

As Evangelicals, we have been more inclined to emphasize that God’s work is dramatic, simple and immediate.  Transformation is immediate when you trust in God for your salvation. Or, in my own tradition, we emphasized that sanctification was an immediate experience when you received the gift of the Spirit.

Well, I do believe in the possibilities of grace. And yet, Catholic perspectives have helped me appreciate the slow, incremental and steady work of God, over time, potentially over a long time — what Eugene Petersen has spoken of as a long obedience in the right direction.

And in this regard, while as Evangelicals, we have been inclined to emphasize the importance of prayer and Bible study for young Christians, the Catholic perspective has brought to many of us an appreciation of a whole host of spiritual practices that we now view as indispensable to the Christian life.

A Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster was rather revolutionary for Evangelical Christians. For Roman Catholics this call to spiritual practice was all rather obvious: virtue and faith is formed in us through practices that are to us a means of grace. Disciplines, practices, routines are essential to our capacity to live in and know the transforming grace of the Holy Spirit.

But my main point here is that these practices — reflecting a routine and rhythm to the Christian life, an ordered life — arise out of a conviction that the Spirit’s work in our lives is slow, gradual and incremental: subtle, but no less effective and no less transformative. In fact I would say that from Catholics I have learned that the deep work of transformation comes slowly, incrementally … over time. There are no quick fixes. There is no assumption that if it is quick, it is somehow more miraculous or more amazing. There is no cheap grace. Rather, there is a deep commitment to the long haul: the slow, incremental, gradual and life-long journey of growing in faith, hope and love.

As a side note, here, I would note also that the Catholic tradition has provided a reminder to many of us that prayer is more than intercession — that, indeed, in prayer we are in “real-time” communion with the risen and ascended Christ.  And, of course, in the language of 2 Corinthians 3, this is a transformative encounter with Christ.  But the crucial piece remains: substantive change in our lives comes slowly and incrementally, over time.

Which leads me naturally to this next point.


4.  Ancient Sources for Christian Spiritual Wisdom.

As a young man in my 20s, I was reading A.W.Tozer, a writer within my own Tradition: a Christian & Missionary Alliance pastor who had pastored in Chicago and then in Toronto. I was struck in reading him by two things: he wrote with depth, power and insight — profound spiritual wisdom. But also this:  he was consistently quoting authors I had never heard of, ancient sources: Bernard of Clairvaux and other pre-16th century voices that I had never heard of in my seminary studies, and had never heard of in my church as a teen-ager. Who were these people?

At one point Tozer stresses the value of reading them.  So I went looking for these authors and their books.  But I was not going to find them in a local, so called, “Christian” bookstore which typically meant and still means an Evangelical bookstore.  I had to go further down the street to the bookstore attached to the Roman Catholic cathedral.

These were not Catholic sources per se; but what essentially happened is that the Protestant Reformation seemed to cut so many Evangelical Christians off from these voices — these spiritual writers. Now, with these gifts that have been kept alive for the church by Catholic publishers, I cannot conceive of my own life without them. They are my spiritual friends, masters of the spiritual life for me and for many Evangelicals:  Catherine of Siena.  Bernard of Clairvaux. Francis of Assisi. Thomas a Kempis and The Imitation of Christ.  Julian of Norwich.

And then also post Reformation voices such as Frances de Sales. And I could go on.

 My point is more this:  that these voices and sources of spiritual wisdom are not Catholic per se — in that they are pre-Reformation; and yet, they are voices that come to us now from this tradition and have been kept present to the church through the faithfulness of this tradition that appreciated their continuing value for the contemporary church.


5.  The vital place of the Intellectual Life and Christian Scholarship in the Mission of God.

My spiritual heritage as an Evangelical has a huge and fulsome emphasis on the need for us to know the salvation of God, to meet Christ at the Cross, and then with all the energy with us to let others know about this good news so that they too would know the salvation of God. And this is all rather simple and not complicated; and, for certain, this means that scholarship, and learning and libraries and the intellectual life are all a bit suspect. 

Thus Mark Noll could write a book, as an Evangelical, entitled:  “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”: a scathing critique of our failure to appreciate the pivotal place of scholarship, universities, the intellectual life and critical thought to the purposes of God in the church and in the world.   As Gordon Fee loved to put it (a New Testament scholar at Regent College when I was the Dean there):   “I am a Pentecostal scholar” . . . offered with a gracious chuckle, in that for many within his own tradition this would be, as he put it, an oxymoron.

Well, no one is going to publish a book on the “Scandal of the Catholic mind … or the “Scandal of the Jesuit mind.” For me, actually, it is the Jesuits who more than any other order or movement demonstrated the vital place of scholarship and learning and the intellectual life in the mission of God.

Now perhaps another book could be written, “the Scandal of the Catholic …  whatever”: you fill in the blank.  My point here is that this was a particular gift of the Catholic world to my own tradition: a corrective.

And we are learning. I am the president of a university; and we have some brilliant and capable young scholars on our faculty — I emphasize those who are young only to highlight and celebrate those younger women and men who are recognizing scholarship as a calling, a vocation, a means of bringing glory to God in life and work.

What I long to see, of course, is how critical theological reflection can inform not only the university but the life of the church:  that we come to recognize that scholars, theologians, philosophers and scientists are vital to our Christian identity (and just saying that now is a reminder to me of how far we still need to go on this score).

It was the Jesuits who helped me to see that education is mission, not merely preparation for mission, but actual mission. Education is apostolic service; educators — in higher education, the work of scholars and researchers in libraries — are doing critical kingdom work.  Scholars are vital, absolutely essential, for the missional purposes of God. We will not reach a post-Christian, secular or pluralist society without attention to the life of the mind.


6.  The Meaning of the Church.

In contemporary discussions and dialogue, it is clear that the most critical issue for discussion, learning and formal dialogue between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals is ecclesiology. The fundamental matter separating Roman Catholics and Evangelicals is not Tradition vs. Scripture, faith vs. works righteousness, not even Mary or celibacy or the sacraments and their meaning, or the centrality of Christ for worship and piety. We might well differ on some of these matters, but they are not the most fundamental point of divide. Rather, the most pressing issue is very simply:  what does it mean to be the church? And in this regard, we need to listen twice as much as we speak.

Yes, of course, there is more learning and discussion to happen on Mary — in particular, what is her relationship to Christ and the Triune God? — on the sacraments and the meaning of the “real presence,” on the place of Tradition, on the meaning of the papacy and the relationship between the papacy and the wider church, including the meaning of the college of bishops. Certainly, much more discussion is needed. But as others have observed, in many respects all of these will bring us back to the real point of divide, and thus to potential learning:  the church. 

My point is that in this discussion, Evangelical Christians need to do some due diligence on what it means to be the church.  Our radical individualism and our propensity for divisive sectarianism is something for which we need to repent; and then, from this penitential posture, begin to read and listen to Catholic theologians, and even local clergy, on what it means to be the church: a liturgical, catechetical and missional community.  And we need to do our homework. I am suggesting that indeed one of the most crucial questions of our day for Evangelicals is the formulation of an ecclesiology that can foster our capacity for good engagement with Roman Catholics on this defining theological issue.

Our learning will include a growing recognition that the church is not just a gathering of individual Christians. Further, we will learn that the unity of the church matters: to affirm, with the Creed, that there is indeed one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.  And we will affirm that the church is an essential vehicle for the mission of God (See Ephesians 3).

As a side note: often when there is debate on this matter, the push back is that truth comes before unity. And yet the fact of the matter is that the unity of the church is a matter of truth. To polarize truth with the unity of the church is a false polarity. Why?  Because there is only one church and this is an article of conviction … of truth. This does not immediately discount any place for schism; it is not “truth at any cost.” I do believe the Reformation was not only tragic, but necessary. And yet, I am still suggesting that as Evangelicals we have much learning to do, as yet, on what it means to be the church. And, however surprising this may sound to some ears, we have much to learn from Roman Catholic theologians and practitioners, such as Avery Dulles, Karl Rahner, and Leonardo Boff, on what it means to be the church.


7.  Liturgical Renewal (and the particular impact of Vatican II).                 

The “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” was the first document approved by the Council; and in many ways, it is the document that has had the most far-reaching influence on the lives of ordinary Catholic believers. It brought to fulfillment the growing liturgical movement of the previous decades and legitimized these new dispositions and orientations — with an affirmation of high participation, the vital place of the Scriptures, the legitimacy of the vernacular, the importance of music and the arts and, of course, the high point of the Eucharist in Christian worship, and the importance of regular participation in the Eucharist.

In effect this Constitution — as the first and foundational point of departure for Vatican II — articulates as brilliantly as any document ever has, that the church is first and foremost a liturgical people, a worshipping community. And a direct result of this emphasis is that we are experiencing a rather extraordinary renewal of liturgical studies in North America, which I am linking directly to this opening document of Vatican II. The impact of liturgical renewal within the Catholic Church has had very significant “spill over” outside of the Catholic world. I think of the defining publication of the World Council of Churches in 1983: Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. And I think also of two major liturgical study centers, one in Jacksonville, Florida, and the other in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Both of these are institutions that very much reflect the impact of Catholic thought and practice.

Then what do we learn — what specifically do I mean when I speak to the impact of this liturgical renewal? Fundamentally, we come to see that the ancient structure of worship is fundament to authentic Christian worship: Word and Table; the ministry of the Word and its complement, the encounter with Christ in the Lord’s Supper.

We learn that the affirmation the faith — the Creed — and the prayer of Confession are not incidental to the meaning and character of worship. These acts matter; they make Christian worship truly Christian worship. In other words, worship is Christian when it has a particular structure and when it includes certain elements that, while we can adapt and be innovative, we can only do so to a point: worship is only Christian worship when it has these elements.  

In particular, let me add this: Catholics understand and appreciate the place of the arts in worship and in the life of the church in a way that makes us feel like beginners.  We have so much to learn about why the arts matter, and why they are indispensable to the life of the church. Hans urs von Balthasar, the great Swiss Catholic theologian, has more than any other writer demonstrated the connection between the work of the Spirit and beauty, and thus of the arts; all of us, Catholic and Evangelical, turn to him for wisdom on this score.



I offer these observations not as a critic or as a judge but as a fellow learner. I also want to add this: we need one another. If we are going to be faithful to the call of God to live out the Gospel, we need to be pilgrims together on this road, perhaps on slightly different roads, but I trust roads that regularly intersect.

The sixteenth century was a tremendous century with a fervent discussion/renewal, both in the Protestant Reformation in the north of Europe and the Catholic Reformation in the south, especially in Spain. Now, in our day, we are reading from the other side of the “great divide,” with Catholics reading Luther and Calvin, and Evangelicals reading the great Spanish reformers. Now our century is recognizing the need to draw on the wisdom from the “other” side of the 16th century Reformation.

And we are all the richer — both of us, Evangelical and Catholic — when we learn from each other, and we learn together from other traditions as well: Orthodox, and Pentecostal.  We can both ask: what might we learn from the Orthodox? Or, what might we learn from the Charismatic and Pentecostal renewal movement of the last century? We are recognizing the following: that in the providence of God, some great wisdom has been housed — for the sake of the whole Christian community — within distinct traditions. And so we have to learn from one another. This means that we must be learning from one another, as a pattern of life, work and ministry. And it means that we do not presume that our own tradition is the “gold standard” by which other Christian traditions are measured and judged.

Finally, let me add this. Many years ago I was introduced to a letter that John Wesley had written, and it was good now review it again: an exquisite correspondence, written in 1749, to a Roman Catholic acquaintance — an irenic piece that includes the following words:

Let us … endeavour to help each other on in whatever we are agreed leads to the Kingdom. So far as we can, let us always rejoice to strengthen each other's hands in God. Above all, let us each take heed to himself (since each must give an account of himself to God) that he fall not short of the religion of love …

If Wesley was so inclined in 1749, how much more should we be generous in our assessment of each other today, eager to learn together, serve together and worship together, in mutual respect and love. Yes, with discernment, but with the discernment of fellow learners, not critics.